How do you answer when someone asks, “What are your hobbies?” Playing guitar, competing in triathlons, decorating show-stopping cakes? As it turns out, engaging in a hobby means more than just having something to chat about at parties or fill your Saturdays with. Research shows that keeping up with the activities that interest us actually has measurable benefits for mental health.

Wondering how your knitting project or instrument practice could bring you peace of mind? We chatted with Dr. Daniel Levitin, neuroscientist, musician, and consultant for Fender’s guitar-learning app Fender Play about various ways investing in a hobby enriches the life of the mind.

Woman playing guitar

Hobbies Make Us Get Creative

Many hobbies are inherently creative. Whether you’re painting, woodworking, or baking muffins, you’re not only producing something that never existed before, you’re engaging the creative network of your brain. Creative pursuits are experimental acts, says Dr. Levitin: “These acts of experimentation expand the neural networks in our brains, making connections between circuits in the brain that might not have otherwise been connected.” This type of neural linking-up boosts mood in a measurable way. It actually modulates levels of the feel-good hormones dopamine and opioids in the brain, says Dr. Levitin. And although popular perception tends to associate “creative types” with mental illness, research indicates that imaginative pursuits are actually restorative for mental health.

While engaged in a creative hobby, you may also find yourself in a mental state known as “flow.” Described by psychologist Mihály Csikszentmihályi, the concept of “flow” is sometimes better known as getting “in the zone.” It occurs when you’re engaged in an activity to the point of almost meditative focus. Ever find that when you sit down to or scrapbook or play piano, your mind doesn’t even wander? That’s flow. Getting into this focused state promotes mindfulness, known for its positive effects on stress and anxiety.

Hobbies Boost Self-Image

When your self-image needs a pick-me-up, you might typically take to social media to rack up likes on a cute photo or funny meme. But for better results, try diving into your favorite hobby. Spending time on your own leisure pursuit is a self-care gift you give yourself — and some hobbies result in actual gifts you can give others. Taking pride in a handmade card or blessing friends with your musical talents could go a long way toward boosting your good vibes.

Hobbies also serve to keep the blues away by helping us hone valuable expertise. Maybe your years of dabbling in web design could lead you to teach a class on it, or perhaps your persistence with running has helped you place in your most recent competitive 5K. This type of skills mastery has been associated with reduced psychological distress. Tellingly, a survey conducted by Fender found that people who played guitar as a hobby had “increased patience, confidence in self and skills, work ethic and persistence.” Sounds like devoting time to improving a skill could make you feel like a rockstar (even if you’re not playing guitar).

Hobbies Connect Us With Others

A number of hobbies are meant to be performed in a group, or lend themselves well to collaborating with others. Picking up a new pastime can be a great way to meet new people and establish friendships. Shared experiences enhance our enjoyment of activities and help us to feel less isolated. Dr. Levitin confirms this phenomenon: “People who play music together experience increased levels of oxytocin, a hormone that promotes social relationships and bonding.” So if you’re looking for the best hobby for your mental well-being, try something interactive, like joining a band or improv group.

With some hobbies, of course, it’s natural to fly solo. (Let’s be honest, it’s a little difficult to do sudoku in a group.) But even your solo pursuits make you a more diverse and interesting person — qualities that attract social engagement.

Hobbies Decrease Stress

Finally, hobbies simply give us a break we can look forward to. Creative hobbies in particular “are the perfect antidote to high-stress jobs of multitasking and computer-based work,” says Dr. Levitin. (We’d argue that physical hobbies are too!) Turning to something non-work-related allows us to “hit the reset button in the brain, replenishing neurochemicals in the brain that have been depleted by a few hours of high-stress work,” he says.

As long as you enjoy your hobby, it really doesn’t matter what it is. Research shows that both physical health and mental health benefit when we use our leisure time for something constructive but fun. So whether it’s continuing your lifelong love affair with soccer or picking up the guitar for the first time, maybe it’s time to make your favorite hobby a priority.

What’s your favorite hobby? Tweet us @BritandCo!

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(Photo via Getty)